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May 27, 2012

The Endangered Art of Makeup FX

EDMONTON — Perusing through her Facebook photo albums you will find a sequence of images of Charlen Middendorf slowly transforming into an animated skeleton. In the first photo she appears as herself with a cap over her head that gives her the appearance of having gone completely bald. The next shot shows Middendorf smiling a vivacious smile as a white base-coat and black shading around the eyes are added. The skeleton design comes full circle in the next few shots as cheek and jaw shading are added, and finally a gaunt mouth of teeth is painted on over her real lips. Voila! A living, breathing, bright blue-eyed skeleton stares back from the mirror as Middendorf congratulates her classmate on her work.
Middendorf’s portfolio features photos of herself, friends and former classmates made over as grotesque ghouls, macabre monsters and trauma victims with facial wounds so realistic that you would think they were severely assaulted.

Rest assured, these outlandish beings are make-believe; they are the products of several tedious hours of makeup, prosthetics and faux flesh application, just as Middendorf was while sitting in as the guinea pig for her fellow classmate’s skeleton face design. These are the creations of a skilled makeup effects artist — a profession that is slowly becoming endangered in the realm of motion picture arts.

An Endangered Art

Although makeup has played an integral part of theatre and film since the very inception of such art forms, the demand for the makeup artistry skill set has dwindled over the past two decades with the wave of new technology that has given birth to digital effects, primarily computer generated imagery (CGI). These new electronic mediums have spawned an entire technology-based industry, where the demand for graphic software experts and tech-jockies supersedes that for brush-wielding makeup artists.

The demand for makeup and special effects artists — in motion picture arts particularly — may be dwindling as technology takes over at a frighteningly rapid pace, but there is still an artistically primitive need for skilled, perseverant makeup artists who can bear the hardships of the industry and still produce top-notch work under extreme amounts of pressure.

“It is tough to find the person that knows how to both manage the department and actually is capable of doing the work, like in terms of running the makeup department as a whole and structuring time and making sure they're responsible essentially for their team getting the work done when they say, and being able to deal with difficult talent, I find that that’s hard to find,” said Katrina Beatty, Maintenance Coordinator at the Film and Video Arts Society of Alberta (FAVA), located at 9722 102 St in Edmonton.

As the demand for traditional makeup artists dwindles, paid employment opportunities are few and far between, particularly in a city like Edmonton where the local arts scene doesn’t get nearly the funding, support and recognition that it deserves. Lack of employment opportunity ultimately results in fewer aspiring makeup artists actively pursuing their career endeavours in doubt that a comfortable living could ever be made, which ultimately leaves local filmmakers like Beatty with few options when it comes to finding a professional artist suited for the job at hand. It’s a vicious cycle, but there are always people who will go to great lengths to pursue their dreams, regardless of an unpredictable and potentially bleak future.

Charlen Middendorf

Currently residing in the west Edmonton neighbourhood of 149 Street and 92 Avenue, 29-year-old Middendorf was born and raised in Germany. Her journey to pursue the unconventional profession of makeup art began in 2006 when she began apprenticing at the Deutsches Theatre in Gottingen (a university town in Lower Saxony, Germany).

“That is a dual-system apprenticeship,” Middendorf says. “You work in theatre and learn all the practical parts from your workmates, and also attend shows as a makeup artist.”

Like any level of education, the degree of difficulty gets higher as you progress, Middendorf said.

“During the three-year apprenticeship, this allows you to learn how the theatre routine works and you get better and faster with every new show and challenge that is handed to you.”

However, Middendorf said there are elements of makeup effects studies that resemble more conventional post-secondary studies that you would find in, for example, a Bachelor of Arts degree program.

“The theory — like theatre history, English, film history and special effects — you learn in school, which you visit twice a year for about six weeks [at a time],” Middendorf explained. “The school is in Hamburg — that means you have to live there during these school schedules.”

Pursuing Passion

In Canada, the road to a career in makeup effects differs from the route that is taken in Germany.

Middendorf said that in Germany, the best way to do it is to put your self out there and apply for an apprenticeship at a local theatre like she did — and the actual schooling part comes secondarily. In Canada, an aspiring makeup artist generally attends a private educational institution, which can be a little on the pricey side between fees and material costs.

“If you get [an apprenticeship] you are pretty lucky, ‘cause a lot of people desire to get the opportunity to work in theatre, especially in the makeup department,” said Middendorf.

New Image Academy

Few educational facilities that specialize in teaching the skills and theory of makeup artistry exist in Canada. New Image Academy in Vancouver, BC is one of those few. Deemed Vancouver’s number-one accredited acting, makeup and esthetics school, aspiring makeup artists can work towards a certificate in beauty makeup, or a diploma in fashion and film makeup design, where they work on the sets of several short films as well as a feature-length.

Megan Nicholson, 26, was lucky enough to have won a draw for a scholarship to New Image, an opportunity that set her on a path that she believed she’d never get to travel. Upon attending a horror fan convention in Victoria, BC, Megan met her future husband, independent Canadian filmmaker Ryan Nicholson of Plotdigger Films. Chatting with Nicholson, she learned that he was teaching special makeup effects at the New Image Academy. He convinced her to put her name in the draw for a scholarship at New Image.

“I really loved horror movies and creature movies from the ‘80s and ‘90s and was just like, ‘Hey, yeah I wanna do that! look how rad that is!’” said Megan Nicholson. “I wasn’t actually going to pursue makeup. I thought it was too expensive and I would never be able to learn it. I thought it was a pipe dream until 2009 came around…I put my name in for a scholarship draw and I won! It was so rad. I flipped out and went to the school. My dream was coming true!”


As for the curriculum, Nicholson described her experience as a makeup student as similar to Middendorf’s experience as an apprentice, the main difference being the academic study that is integrated in the schooling that Middendorf did in Germany.

“When you start the course you learn beauty and fashion and airbrushing for about six months,” Nicholson said. “You learn photography and Photoshop as well... then you go into kit effects and then onto movies and monsters — learning all the blood, guts, creatures and gore — it’s amazing. If you want to learn how to do a specific effect that’s not in the [curriculum], you just ask and the teachers will always show you, or at the very least, give you a detailed step-by-step. They teach you all the things you need to know to learn and read about makeup so you understand it. It’s so amazing.”

Middendorf described her schooling in Germany as more of a combination of academic studies and learning makeup artistry the practical, hands-on way.

“School depended on what schedule we had, of course — usually eight hours scheduled: two hours of hair design, two hours of business English, two hours of special effects, drawing and sculpting, two hours of film history and epoch history,” Middendorf said. “We usually stayed longer in school because of team work for presentations, or to prepare a wig for the next day for hair design.”

Studying Makeup in Canada

As Nicholson mentioned, if it weren’t for the scholarship, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to receive an education in makeup, as formal training at an accredited institution is quite costly. However, she noted that New Image offers cheaper programs than some other institutions.

“The tuition right now is $16, 500 and that includes your entire makeup kit throughout the course,” Nicholson explained, “which is way more affordable than some of the other schools. The makeup you get is industry-standard, you also get an airbrush.”

Other institutions in Canada that specialize in makeup studies are:

· Vancouver Film School (Vancouver, BC)
· The School of Makeup Art Ltd. (Toronto, ON)
· Numa International Institute of Makeup and Design (Calgary and Edmonton, Alta)
· Canadian Beauty College (Ontario)
· John Casablancas Institute (Vancouver, BC)
· Career School of Hair and Nails (Oshawa, ON)
· Complections International Academy of Makeup Artistry (Toronto, ON)

D.I.Y. Alternatives

On the flip side, in the late ‘70s and ‘80s when horror cinema was at its peak and the demand for makeup and special effects artists was at an all time high, those who dedicated their time to building the skill set and learning the tricks of the trade were doing so without a formal education. They were diving head first into buckets of fake blood and jars of makeup, hitting the ground running, as the phrase goes.

Twenty-four-year-old James Cadden of Edmonton decided to pursue his passion for film makeup and special effects the old-fashioned way: simply by teaching himself with a little help from online tutorials and instructional videos.

“I became interested in special effects makeup because it was something I previously had no experience with, but had wanted to try for a long time,” Cadden said. “I felt that my time and involvement in learning and practicing the craft would benefit the production values of my own, and other people’s independent short films.”

Cadden also said that he had prior experience creating digital effects, which can be very time-consuming and tedious without achieving the same satisfactory results of creating the same effects with makeup and other raw materials.

“I felt I could achieve better results by doing some effects practically on location,” Cadden said.

Since his first experience in 2007 creating a special makeup effect with spirit gum and liquid latex — and not the slightest idea of how to use them properly — Cadden has gone on to do the makeup effects for several of his friends’ film projects over the years, some of which have been entered in Metro Shorts, a short film competition hosted by Edmonton’s Metro Cinema every month.

Makeup VS. Digital Effects

Although full-time, paid makeup gigs may seem few and far between in this day and age where digital effects seem to be the predominant choice for Hollywood filmmakers and big production studios, there still exists the quiet demand for skilled makeup effects artists in film, video and television.

From a local angle, Beatty of FAVA believes that there will likely always be a place for makeup artists.

“I see a lot of it being used on set,” Beatty said. “I still find most filmmakers would rather shoot it the right way. I know, myself personally, especially with all these incredibly detail-specific new technologies that will pick up every line or crinkle or pore in somebody’s skin, I find a good makeup artist is incredibly invaluable.”

Beatty said that not only is there the creative appeal of using makeup instead of digital effects, but there is also a financial upside as well as efficiency.

“It’s amazing to watch [artists] create a fat lip and a giant bruise in a matter of seconds, whereas to create something like that in post [production] would take hours,” she said. “It’s just not financially viable to aim to create stuff like that in post-production.”

As for the future of makeup art, Beatty believes the industry is open to a lot of changes. She emphasized that digital effects do have a significant place in film and video arts, and that she predicts a lot of give and take from the two.

“There will be a little shuffling while the industry sort of figures out what the protocol is, but you can’t replace the creativity and the skills that come with having a person create that rather than a machine,” she said. “The more formats become as sharp and as crisp and as clear as they are, the more we’ll need makeup artists to work, not just to do special effects work but to keep people looking the way that audiences imagine that superstars look. So I think there will always be a place, it’s just a matter of figuring out how and where that is, [because] it’s shifting.”

Cadden believes that the best career move any makeup or special effects artist could make is to learn it all — the practical stuff and the digital side of things.

“I think CG does have a place and it does allow independent filmmakers with no money to do some things cheaper and better than practical effects will allow,” Cadden said. “For example, simulating property destruction. It would be very expensive to rig squibs, than have to do clean up and consider things like safety. You can just go crazy in a computer and get something that you would never be able to get in real-life, except with great cost, and still have it look very good.”

Industry Opportunities

Nicholson sees a bright future for herself as well as other skilled makeup artists. Currently working full-time as a beauty advisor for Clinique and also as the primary effects artist for Plotdigger Films, she believes that she’s getting the best of both worlds.

“There’s so much opportunity to be had,” she said. “My next step is applying for the union. That’s what I’m working on now — I’m just a feature film shy.”

Middendorf makes her way between Edmonton — where both her brother and her significant other live — and Germany. Not yet legally entitled to work in Canada and not very fluent in English, Middendorf said that she hasn’t had much luck finding work in the industry while living in Edmonton.

“I haven’t worked as a makeup artist in Edmonton for a long period of time,” she said. “But I’ve got some daily assignments for brides or photo shoots though. I was also a volunteer at the Fringe Festival and did some kids’ makeup. It seems like you have to be in the union to get paid jobs in Canada.”

On the contrary, Middendorf described the array of employment opportunity in the makeup industry that is available to her in her home country.

“I usually work in theatre under a contract (not freelance) when I am in Germany, or for a period of time for a theatre festival. My last job was in a national theatre.”

Having recently made the trip back to Germany, Middendorf plans to acquire her worker’s permit and come back to Edmonton where she will apply in the fast food industry and pretty well be guaranteed paid work. Meanwhile, she will continue to look for freelance makeup gigs.

Cadden works as a digital communications specialist for the Edmonton Public Library by day, and a freelance effects artist for local filmmakers in his free time.

As tough as it can be for an up-and-coming makeup effects artists to find paid work in the industry, opportunities do exist. It’s merely a matter of putting one’s self out there and persevering. Makeup artistry is only one of many skill sets that could contribute to tremendous growth for the arts community.

“As an employee of FAVA, I see an incredible amount of talent coming in and out of these doors that are making films and I think the hardest part for them is finding the support,” Beatty said. “So as long as we’re capable of supporting our own industry there’s no reason why Edmonton can’t be a thriving urban environment for [the arts] in Canada.”

The Beginning of Makeup in Film

In 1909 — during the inaugural period of cinema — a Jewish cosmetician, wigmaker and entrepreneur named Max Factor Sr. (born Maksymilian Faktorowicz) launched the giant cosmetics company, Max Factor & Co. Factor moved to Los Angeles where the film industry was just beginning to flourish. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for him to provide hand-made wigs and theatrical makeup to the burgeoning industry. That same year, Factor became the primary west coast distributor of two of the leading manufacturers of theatrical makeup at the time: Leichner and Minor.

Factor took it upon himself to experiment with a variety of material compounds to get the consistency of makeup satisfactory for the silver screen. By the 1920s, he became reputable for his ability to customize his products for individual actors. Bette Davis, Judy Garland and Joan Crawford were just a few of the celebrities who regularly used Factor’s products.

Since his death in 1938, Factor has been remembered as one of the founding fathers of makeup for film. In 1929, he was awarded an honourary Academy Award by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences for his contributions to the industry. It can be said that Factor is also indirectly responsible for inspiring a century of artists to pick up a brush and a palette of colours and develop the meticulous skill of applying makeup — and in modern theatre and film, a plethora of other materials that can be used to mould a human into anything the artists deem themselves capable of.

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